Countess Cora: a rock chick at heart

She's well-known as the refined lady of Downton Abbey, but Elizabeth McGovern has a wilder side. She talks to Elisa Bray about her alter ego Sadie and her passion for music

When she hasn't been donning 1920s finery for her role as the refined Countess Cora on Downton Abbey, actress Elizabeth McGovern has been fronting a band. Although, she is quick to point out: "It never was Cora suddenly being in the band, it was this person in a band suddenly being Cora."

After years of playing guitar as a hobby, strumming along to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, in 2002 McGovern answered an advert offering guitar lessons. Her teacher, Steve Nelson, became her bandmate in Sadie and the Hotheads, and under his guidance the songs poured out. "I was amazed to find it so comfortable", she says "because I've never thought of myself as a writer; I've sometimes thought, because I've spent so many years reading scripts and plays, that I should try and write one, but I couldn't even fill up half a page. For some reason I sat down and these song ideas poured out of me."

McGovern, 51, is in rock singer guise today, black jeans and silk shirt, when we meet in Chiswick, west London, near where she lives with her husband, the British film director Simon Curtis, and their two daughters. Sadie and the Hotheads' debut album was released in 2007, but its October follow-up How Not To Lose Things has been given a considerably bigger push in the wake of her increased profile thanks to Britain's most successful TV period drama since 1981's Brideshead Revisited. A tour is scheduled for February. She played the penultimate night of her residency at London pub The Troubadour. Reviews have been mixed, and not all will be won over, but there's a certain charm to the unpolished, husky vocals McGovern stamps on her country, down-home folk, rock 'n' roll and lounge-jazz songs. And McGovern isn't interested in delivering perfect renditions.

"I'm not the greatest guitar player, I'm certainly not the greatest singer in the world, but that's not what it's about. It's about connecting. It's very idiosyncratic. You either will love it or hate it, but it's genuine." For her, Sadie, which began as an alter-ego, is all about expression – you could say the antithesis of her fictional family, the uptight Granthams. "That thing that's inside everybody, their true voice, and if there's anything that gives me great happiness it would be that my music connects to people in a way that they can have confidence in their inner Sadie to do whatever it is they do."

The self-expression that the band affords also makes a diversion from acting. "As an actress, I've always tried to embody somebody else's vision as best I can. With the music it's a whole different thing: I'm serving my voice. And it's taken me 40 years to find that voice." That voice is the "50-year-old woman waking up after 20 years with a great guy, watching her kids grow up, tending to the day-to-day monotony of existence. There's not a lot of music being written now for someone who's in a time of life that isn't angst-ridden and I'm really interested to see if people can relate to that".

The world of muddy festival and pub performances are a far cry from her glamorous Hollywood past. Before she started her music career at pub-based open-mic nights, McGovern lived in New York and Los Angeles where she cut her teeth in films while becoming one of Hollywood's hottest young properties. At 19, she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Ragtime, and she starred in Ordinary People, and in Once Upon a Time in America with Robert de Niro. Later, she came over to Britain to make Christopher Hampton's Tales From Hollywood, and met its producer, Curtis, and soon after, moved here.

For someone accustomed to the glamour of Hollywood, how did she find performing in London's dingy pubs? "So fun!" she exclaims, "because I could just leave everything that was my preconception of myself behind. Nobody cared about who I was or where I came from, and I found that incredibly liberating. I don't believe I would have done any of this had I stayed in the life I was leading and I had this weight on my shoulders which was my identity from when I was a teenager. I just felt I could recreate myself."

While it was an easy decision to move country, it wasn't so easy in practice, and it wasn't helped by the fact that it coincided with some of life's other great milestones – marriage, pregnancy, and giving up a career, all in the space of six months. "It was a split-second decision and it was difficult to accept the decision I'd made afterwards. There was a lot of processing I had to do." What she wasn't prepared for was finding herself an outsider among British people, unable to understand the intonations and quirks, and the differences in culture, in particular, the coffee – or lack of it. "When I first came over you just couldn't get a decent cup of coffee. And I know there is a God because a month after I was here I got down on my hands and knees and prayed for Starbucks, and now there are three on every corner."

This summer her British-born children watched their mother perform at the Isle of Wight festival. It was the first time McGovern felt that she wasn't a source of irritation and mild embarrassment to her children who have slammed the door to avoid her constant practising around the family home.

It's impossible to avoid the incongruity of McGovern's double life as Cora and a rock singer. Would she make the transition from filming Downton Abbey to heading straight to gigs? "No", she says with that recognisable polite, sweet smile, "but Michelle Dockery and I used to hike up our skirts and go into my trailer and sing together and work out the harmonies for all the songs. I could hear her singing to herself on the set, so I lured her into my trailer." Dockery's backing vocals feature on six of the album's songs. Still, McGovern likes to keep the worlds of Downton and her band separate. "I genuinely try to keep my brain on Downton Abbey when I'm there because it is a different way of thinking."

For now her focus is directed towards her biggest goal for the band: making it financially viable, to the point where she can pay her band for playing. I suggest merchandise, and for a second she looks horrified. "I think I've made the mistake of being insensitive about the business perspective, as if it's too crass to consider it, and now I really understand the necessity. Merchandise, bring it on baby, sell my soul! Whatever it takes."

Sadie and the Hotheads are on tour 8-18 February sadieandthehotheads.com; The Downton Abbey Christmas Special will be shown on ITV on Christmas Day at 9pm

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal